Claude Monet’s “The Japanese Footbridge” (1899) is currently on display at the National Art Gallery. Author Derek Thompson asked himself, “Why is this painting famous?” and was inspired to write this book. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Can fifty million Johannes Brahms fans be wrong? Atlantic editor Derek Thompson wonders how there came to be fifty million Brahms fans – or fans of anything, really – in the first place. Thompson’s book Hit MakersThe Science of Popularity in An Age of Distraction guides the reader through individual examples of cultural phenomena and explains what made them so popular. He casts his net wide across Western culture and hauls in George Lucas, Raymond Loewy, Taylor Swift, Claude Monet, and others to create compelling analyses of the icons that grip us (as well as the strangest bar joke never told). Thompson thankfully avoids dictating a formula for success as well as a long string of affirmations that awesome products are indeed awesome. He leaves any judgment of quality to the reader and instead presents both a book of fascinating stories and a look the science behind the magic.

When Thompson discusses a pop culture icon, he identifies a key element and explains how that element contributed to the icon’s success. In a chapter about “exposure,” Gustave Caillebotte’s public exhibition of Impressionist art gave Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, and Cezanne the publicity they needed for their careers to take off. In another, he uses Axis of Awesome’s YouTube video, “Four Chords” as an illustration for the way the songs on Top 40 radio use “repetition” and “familiarity” to catch our ears. Radio provides the “exposure” necessitated by the Caillebotte chapter and all three combined equal a modern pop song. In the case of these two chapters, the factors he emphasized include “exposure,” “repitition,” and “familiarity.” As Thompson stitches together narratives,  he always retraces his footsteps and builds on the last topic he discussed before switching chapters.

Of all the pop culture histories in his book, the chapter on George Lucas captivated me the most, and I suspect that Thompson had the most fun writing here. This chapter recounts George Lucas’s obsession with Flash Gordon, his inability to direct a film adaption of that superhero, and his decision to write his own space fantasy instead. Thompson chases the origins of Flash Gordon back to the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s literary character, John Carter (the inspiration behind John Carter). Thompson absolutely goes wild, happily pointing out the World War II films that inspired the dogfights above Yavin 4, the influences of Akira Kurosawa, and a comic book series that features a cosmic superpower called “the Source.” He ties it all up by interviewing an Isaac Asimov loving Hollywood mathematician about the factors that make modern popular movies have in common, and deduces that Star Wars hit most of these buttons back in 1977. However, as much as Thompson clearly loves Star Wars, he never explicitly claims it as a favorite (in a later chapter, he mentions a fondness for Dumb and Dumber) nor does he set it above other films. He focuses on the popularity and lets his own nerdy tendencies do the work.

Other sections of Thompson’s book could probably merit from the love and attention he gave to the George Lucas chapter. For example, the subtitle “The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction” could easily be shortened to merely “the Science of Popularity.” Ironically, any discussion of about attention spans in the modern era are forgettable next to the tall tales about yesteryear. Furthermore, the only bits of popular culture he dissects come from the Western world. The hasty apology Thompson gives left me wondering why there isn’t room for Godzilla, The Gods Must Be Crazy, Ravi Shankar, or Mario in this bookshelf museum. The compiled stories of famous products gave the book its most compelling sections, but the author sporadically interjects with fourth wall asides and meta jokes about the modern nonfiction market. They lend some levity, but read like misplaced apologies. I found these confusing, and would prefer to read more of the stories that brought into the book.

Overall, Thompson provides a thoroughly fascinating look under the hood at popular products that we interact with every day. The stories he relates grab the attention of fans from across all media from classical music to smartphone apps to old school Disney toys to Mad Men and Breaking Bad. I recommend to anyone who’s spent more than an hour on this site, but also to anyone whose ever asked themselves, “Why people even like (insert pop culture artifact)?” with more than passing disdain.

Four out of five stars. Pair it with Gladwell’s Outliers in order to over-analyze everything you love.

Favorite quote: “Industrialized fantasy was not the future of the economy. It was, however, the future of entertainment.”


Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House